Style Alchemy

clothes style wearer

In my opinion, clothes are what we wear to keep ourselves warm and protected from the elements. Style, however, has social foundations. Style has to do with consensus – trends and aesthetics that have been agreed upon by multiple people – and with etiquette, relationships, and perceptions. Even those who have style that is as far as possible from the accepted norms have it, at least in part, because their peers acknowledge it. You don’t need style to move through human society, you just need clothes. But the people who are actively interested in style and in being stylish will always be fascinated by rules, flattery, trends, and techniques of building outfits. Those things tap the social aspects of style.

Style and clothes interact through the individual wearer. For one thing, clothing will fit each individual body differently and therefore look different in action. For another, most clothing requires other clothing for a complete outfit, and adding shoes, accessories, layers and other nods to active “styling” finishes the look. Individual people will style their clothing in different ways.

And then there’s that alchemy that happens when certain people wear certain clothes … and doesn’t happen in other cases.

That last is something I’ve been mulling for ages. Since middle school, really. At that age, I realized that having and wearing certain clothes helped make certain girls seem or be “cool.” I didn’t have the money or the leverage with my parents to get all of the fancy brand-name garments I desired, but I got a few. And yet when I wore them? Nothing. Not only did they fail to affect my social status or overall cool factor, they didn’t look the same on me as they did on my peers. No alchemy.

Actually, this still confounds me at times. Although proportions, age, size, and certain other factors of physicality can definitely play in, sometimes they are irrelevant. Why is it that one woman can wear a emerald green silk romper and look effortlessly chic, yet another woman of similar age and build can put on the same garment and somehow look less chic? The observer’s impressions and opinions will be impacted by personal taste, of course, but there is often something ephemeral at play, too. This is je ne sais quoi territory. Certain clothes on certain women work magnificently. Put those clothes on other women and the looks just aren’t as successful. If I had any scientific way of studying this, I’d seriously consider it as a side project.

In my own case, the clothes that don’t work on me are the ones that teach me the most. And not in a scolding, not cool enough, not thin enough, not sexy enough way. (Thankfully, I’m beyond that. On most days, at least.) And I can say with confidence that I no longer view women who can “pull off” styles that I dislike on myself as somehow superior, or members of some elite, secret club. I acknowledge the alchemy factor, but also engage some open-minded contemplation and experimentation. The clothes that I see working on others but that fail on me force me to examine my own clothing/style interplay. I ask myself, “What are the defining traits of this piece, and how do they interact with the defining traits of my own style choices?” I examine fit issues and there are definitely items that simply don’t align with my own figure-flattery priorities, but many of the items in question appealed to me in the first place because I saw them on women with figures similar to my own. So I look at how others have successfully styled these items and compare their choices to mine – accessories, shoes, tucking, belting, jewelry, hair, layers, color and texture variations, and more. Sometimes executing a few styling tweaks does the trick, sometimes not. But examining the differences is a fascinating exercise and helps me make better guesses at which new styles might hit that marvelous alchemical note for me in the future.

If you’ve had similar experiences, I would gently encourage you to jettison as much judgment as you can. So, that dress looks phenomenal on her and not-quite-right on you? That is not a reflection on your value, beauty, or goodness. Nor hers. There are items in your closet that, when you see yourself wearing them, make you want to French kiss the mirror … and those items might look a mess on her. Such is the way of style alchemy. So play with accessorization and styling and use these instances as a reason to give some thought to your own style and clothing choices. Don’t decide that alchemy or lack thereof is a judgmental reflection on you or anyone else. Just like some human relationships, some garment/style/body relationships just weren’t meant to be. Others? Destined for a lifetime of perfect chemistry.

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22 Responses to “Style Alchemy”

  1. Shyla

    One word = confidence
    Not faking it til you make, not posing or pretending. Confidence makes anything look sexy. It makes clothes and jewelry and scarves and shoes all perfectly matching accessories for it.

  2. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Agreed, I think it’s a combination of all the styling guidelines (colors, shapes, fabrics, etc.) and that je ne sais quoi you refer to. Our happiness in any given outfit definitely plays a part. And I too have moved past judging myself “wrong” because certain looks just don’t work for me. I look dead in a conservative business suit, e.g., but Robin Wright (on House of Cards) wears one like a boss.

  3. Olivia

    For me, style alchemy is completely entwined with societal prejudices. I’m thinking about how thin, young women (think high school/college age) and “get away” with wearing sweats or yoga pants and look cute, but when a fat and/or older woman wears them she is “sloppy” or has “given up”.

    • Annabeth

      Very, very true. I am currently taking a college course alongside kids 20-25 years younger than me, and sometimes I think, If I wore the exact same stuff they wore, people would assume I was homeless.

  4. Sandy B

    Aging has been the best teacher of style for me, meaning that I’ve learned what styles look best on me and what colors compliment me. Does this date me? By no means! I mix what is fashionable with what is classic and can continue to look stylish and feel good. I love the new trends, but with my shape, most of them don’t work. So, I use today’s colors to bring me up-to-date and add today’s accessories to make me somewhat trendy. And I think that feeling good in an outfit is the best indicator of looking good as well.

  5. Anne

    I have been using magazines, catalogs, and blog pictures as outfit inspiration more and more frequently in the past years. Partly to hone my style in a way that more closely suits my life, and partly to wear what I already own. I would say I have about a 30-50% success rate having having my version of the garment or outfit look as good. When an outfit doesn’t turn out as well as I’d like it doesn’t really faze me. It’s usually because the garment proportions are off in some way. Also, I’ve noticed that the longer I play around with style and fashion, the more discerning my eyes become. I notice all kinds of little discrepancies that might not have bothered me before. I’ve become pickier over the years. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s okay to look good (and I think I look pretty good most days) you don’t always have to look perfect. Pursuing perfect will drive you crazy eventually.

  6. Debby

    Thank you for tackling this question. Like you, I’ve been wondering about it since high school too.

    Personally, I’ve always wanted what I call ballerina body: tall, slim, graceful. So women who have that body type, and wear full skirts and dresses with closer fitting tops, or models in photographs wearing same, always catch my attention. But when I put these same style items on my average height, average build body, they lose the magic of the dancer’s form. They are just…clothes. So I think there is an element of imagination attached to our clothes and who we want to be, and it’s important to be aware of that.

    Also, when I’ve asked other people, they tell me that quality and fit of clothes give that lean, elegant look that I crave. Honestly, I didn’t want to hear that — it sounds so boring compared to “shop here!” or “buy this piece!” which is easier and more fun. But I’ve read it enough times, that those with bigger budgets who have every piece of clothing tailored to fit as though it was made just for them always look fabulous, that I’m starting to let it sink in a little. When I see photos of celebrities wearing baggy tops with ripped jeans and sneakers, I barely take notice. But put them in Katharine Hepburn styles, elegantly tailored wide legged pants and blouses, and I want.that.outfit.

    And I still want to be taller, so I’m experimenting with heels and the full skirts. It does help. 🙂

  7. AnitJ

    “How come I am a size 0 in brand X but a size 4 in brand Y” and it still doesn’t fit right. I know of a company that is working on this problem and have figured out a cool way to help women find great styles that fit correct regardless of body type. It may not be as exact as custom tailored but how often do we do that. It is a simple 2 minute survey.

    The link is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/BKL9XNW

  8. just_kazari

    I admit to being jealous of those women who look so effortlessly elegant and put-together. I might start off the day that way but by the end of the day I feel frazzled and frumpy. I feel that part of the issue is that I, myself, are not one of those ‘put-together’ women, where every detail is exactly so and shoes are shined and every hair in place! I’ve accepted this about myself, and try to stick to clothes that are both stylish and comfortable for me, and within my own personal style, because as someone said earlier, confidence goes a long way.

  9. Lisa

    Alchemy is a very apt term for the transformative effect that a woman can have on what she’s wearing!

    For me, it’s about the feeling that a piece of clothing or a way of styling things evokes. I might see another girl wearing a long-sleeved shirt layered under a cardi and think she looks great, but I know that on me it feels bulky and uncomfortable, over-emphasizes my chest, and makes me feel less confident. If I’m wearing something that I think looks good and that feels like me, that’s when the alchemy effect happens.

  10. Lisa

    Alchemy. Exactly what I feel I don’t have, really. I still imagine I’ll be cool, and then that’s just not me. I can pull off some other looks though, so there you go.

  11. Monica H

    Thanks for calling it alchemy and ‘je ne sais quoi.” Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one that doesn’t understand this! I am a tall thin person, but most of the clothes that look great on models don’t look good on me. Slowly, I’ve come to understand that my short waist and wide ribcage have a lot to do with what actually looks good on me, possibly more so than my body type.

    I’ve also only recently learned as well that my style is also very dependent on personality. I might really love the look of a frilly boho look on someone else, bit when I put on the same clothes they are just weird. I’ve eventually figured out after much pondering (and ineffective shopping) that it has nothing to do with the fit or proportion of the clothes. The issue is I’m not very feminine and very feminine touches like ruffles may highlight my bust but they are still all wrong. I’m not a free spirited arty type, so that aspect doesn’t match either.

    I’ve figured out these two aspects, but there’s still a lot that remains mysterious to me. 🙂

  12. Mollie

    I find this alchemy to be really an expression of a combination of authenticity and confidence. When I wear something that feels “me” totally in sync with my personality and body and style, then it seems to shine. If it’s the right fit and color and flattering and everything else but doesn’t feel like “me” it will never look quite right. And I think when the sync comes, then so does the confidence.

    • KayBug

      Completely agree Mollie. I think the typical characteristics of a piece of clothing (color, cut, fit, proportion on the body, accessories) only reach the alchemy level when they also express the personality of the person wearing them, whether by themselves (just a dress with sandals) or with other pieces (separates, accessories, finishers).

      It is this self expression that for me is the dividing line between fashion and style. Fashion is an external source that provides inspiration, images, art and boundary crossing in clothing and personal adornment. Style is an internal source that takes clothing and personal adornment and makes it an expression of the individual’s personality and physical aspect.

  13. LK

    Thought-provoking post. I wonder if the je ne sais quoi in these clothes transformations is related to that same mysterious quality that makes some people very photogenic. I say this because when I think of the about ten people I know who could wear a burlap sack and make it look chic, and these friends and family aren’t conventional model types either, they’re also very photogenic. I don’t know, but my guesses based on these ten examples I know are that looking stylish may positively correlate with: great posture, sparkling eyes, an air of energy, and sometimes a stage (music, theater, dance, debate, etc) background where they’re used to having people look at them and commanding that attention.

  14. LK

    I also wanted to note that while I am NOT one of those put clothes on & bring an outfit to life, it’s sometimes magical if still perplexing & utterly awe-inducing just to be in the presence of those who are. For example, while visiting a cousin in Boston a few years ago, my brother, cousin and I walked for hours around town through a heavy windstorm and light rainfall. At the end of the day, my hair was going in every direction (literally, being an odd-shaped mane w dozens of alfalfa cowlicks is its specialty), my face was all red and wind stung, my pants were mud-splattered, one glove was missing; I looked like I had just gone through a small tornado. My brother was a scaled-down version of my look, as were most people on the street. My cousin, however, despite not using a hood, umbrella, perceptible hairspray or anything else, still had gorgeous hair, face, and outfit, including unwrinkled skirt and spotless boots. We joked she must have a magic bubble around her to protect her from the elements.

  15. sandrine

    You could delete the in my opinion from your first paragraph. Who doesn’t agree with that?

  16. Gracey the Giant

    Great post, Sal. And I really, really enjoyed reading all of the comments. This is something I struggle with/wonder about as well but definitely knew it wasn’t all body type. For myself, I agree with Mollie that it’s about authenticity. If I wear something that feels like “me” in that maybe it doesn’t make me look tall and thin but still makes me happy, then I am able to wear is more successfully than even something that flatters my figure like crazy but doesn’t feel like me.

  17. sarah

    I suspect the alchemy starts with fit, and that we gradually cultivate different kinds of chicness based on what we have to work with. For example, I’ve got a girlfriend with the same height (5’10” to my 5’11”), same build (slim), same long arms, same colouring – we’re mistaken for sisters all the time. However, the first time we ever went shopping together, I had some real revelations. I’d never noticed before that my friend’s torso is much longer than mine, and consequently, that her legs are shorter. As I discarded a boxy sweater that just looked frumpy on me, my friend tried it on over her skinny jeans and bam! It was that amazing louche-chic rumpled/casual thing that I’ve always admired but never been able to pull off. But two minutes later, as I tried on some wide-leg trousers, my friend sighed that she could never pull wide-legs off. “NO way!” I insisted. She pulled the pants on to show me – and lo and behold, she looked like a kid trying on an adult’s clothes. Since then, I’ve started asking my other friends who pull off that volume-on-top, skinny-on-bottom silhouette in just the way I like it – and yes, all of them have short inseams and long torsos. And over the years, as they’ve learned that this look flatters them, they’ve honed it to stylish perfection. It’s been a huge relief for me, in a way – somehow I thought maybe I just wasn’t cool enough to be able to pull that look off (and the ubiquity of skinny jeans in the past five years hasn’t helped). I’ve realized I actually never learned to cultivate this look because it’s not a look that tends to flatter me.. Even now, I own just a few pairs of skinny pants and am still learning to pair them to create flattering outfits. IT’s definitely unfamiliar territory – but at least I no longer link it to some critical defect, some inherent lack of cool!

  18. Shaye

    I’m just going to echo a lot of what other people have said. To me, that “certain something” is a combination of a few factors. That romper looks good on one woman and not-right on another because the other woman feels “not right” in it. That’s the first step. Loving and feeling wholly “you” (OR completely not-you in a deliberate way that makes you feel good about yourself) in a garment is important in building a consistent style. But what makes a garment feel like it’s “you”?

    Color, print, shape, etc are all important. But there are plenty of garments that have all the factors that make you swoon and still don’t look right. That, I believe, is because bodies are far more individual than garments, and even though we know that, even the most body-positive of us still sometimes blame our bodies rather than the cut of the garment.

    Learning to alter my clothes has changed a lot about how I approach fit. It is amazing, for instance, how much of a difference an inch can make in terms of waist placement or skirt length. It’s something we might not notice unless specifically trained for it.

    One of the things I like most about vintage clothing is that the necessity of precise tailoring means I am much better able to look at a dress and know how it’s going to look on me.

  19. Kitty

    I’ve been learning all I can with Carol Tuttle’s Dressing Your Truth. Its about your dominant way of moving in the world. Once you understand that – its much easier to hone in on the clothes that express it well and then everything in your closet it right and it works well together. Search for her 4 types beauty panel discussions on youtube. I’ve been a devoted fan for 3 years now. Finally – my closet works for me and I love getting dressed every day.